Writing Exercises

from Screenwriting Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell


Photo of Stephen J. Cannell
Writing believable, interesting dialogue is one of the most important skills you must learn as a writer. You can learn to write great dialogue. There's certainly a creative skill involved, but you can also develop the skill. For example, if you're going to write a white teenage hooker from a very poor background having a conversation with a successful female African-American attorney, clearly you've got two people who are coming from completely different places, who each have completely different value structures. The first thing you must do is ask yourself what a fifteen year old hooker sounds like when she talks. She'll likely use coke dialogue, hooker dialogue and the metaphor of the street. So, if you didn't grow up on the street, how in the world do you learn to write a street hooker? Luckily, your local library and bookstore carry street dialogue books, slang dictionaries, technical, military dictionaries etc. Independent bookstores are more likely to have them than the big chains.

One thing you can do to help develop your ear is to start paying attention to the accents and speech patterns around you. Television, especially documentaries, can also be a source for finding new accents and speech patterns of real people. In Riding the Snake, I have British characters. There are many subtle differences between the way Americans speak and the way the British speak, although they are both speaking English. For example, the British don't say elevator, they say lift: "Take the lift up," not "go up in the elevator." The words are different -- you've got to start to hear the rhythms of different speech patterns. You have to hear the rhythm of the attorney, of the young prostitute. She's perhaps from a terrible background, or maybe she ran away from an abusive situation before she could finish her schooling. You start to feel those things and then you start to write the character. The character has to come from inside you. When your dialogue starts to sound pretty good, then read it over. Be careful it doesn't get pretentious or "written" because you tried to put in all those cute phrases that you learned. Don't put too much of the slang in; you can make it over colorful. Over time, you will develop an instinct for believable dialogue, and you will learn to make each of your characters sound distinctly different.

You must learn to create a sound for a particular character that can be read on the page and performed by an actor correctly. It's not just the actor's delivery that creates that - it's your delivery on the page. Does the character speak in short sentences? Do you have a character that rambles? Is he or she uneducated? Does the character speak in perfect grammar or does he make a lot of grammatical errors? Is the character college-educated? Does he or she take real pride in the preciseness of the words? You can create a very stiff, very proper type of character by simply having him or her use large words that are unfamiliar to a large number of people and to have him or her use perfect grammar. Other characters speak in sentence fragments and ramble when they speak. Some characters are street characters; clearly they have to speak with the dialogue of the street. They might say, "Hey Momma, you be dusted down and fronted to the max." And if that's the line, then you've got to know how to write that line (and what it means!). That's where the research comes in.

One of the biggest mistakes that most novice writers make is to create characters that all sound exactly like they do. This makes for flat-footed, uninteresting dialogue. Also, remember that people don't speak in complete sentences. You must learn that broken sentences and sentence fragments are your friends when you're doing dialogue.

Another mistake that inexperienced writers tend to make with dialogue is they put emotional keys under the character, e.g., Susan said sympathetically, David said a little angry. Actors simply hate that. Unless there is some line that can be mistaken because it can be read two ways, then it just isn't worth putting in the description. If the line is ambiguous, then it might be worth putting a descriptive word in there. "I just love that!" (sarcastically). But aside from that one exception to the rule, I try to eliminate that kind of direction from scripts because it's considered an insult to the actors if you load your scripts with too many emotional keys. It also slows down the readability of the scripts. You can certainly give the attitudes in the shot descriptions, but don't keep repeating them throughout the dialogue. This points up the difference between screenplay writing and novel writing. In screenplays, you will have actors interpreting your lines, giving them emotion. In novels, you have to do a little more.

EXERCISE NO. 1 - DIALOGUE - Screenplay or Novel

Write the following scene: The setting is a room in a courthouse. A Princeton-educated criminal attorney is interviewing his clients who have been accused of murder (unjustly): a black female prostitute, a white redneck convicted killer and a Southern Baptist preacher who represents both of them spiritually and insists on being in the room. They are having a heated discussion of the evidence against them. Now how do they all sound? How do they speak? What are they saying? They can't sound the same way. Remember, it's your job as a writer to create that difference.

EXERCISE NO. 2 - DIALOGUE - Screenplay or Novel

Write a scene which contains at least four people interacting with one another. Make sure that each character has a different background. Pick characters with different genders, socioeconomic backgrounds, different races, different ages, from different parts of the country, or from different countries etc. The setting is inside an elevator in a public government building in a downtown city - a place you would likely get four people of different backgrounds. Halfway up to the 50th floor, the elevator jolts and stops. The lights blink. It's stalled. What happens next? After you write the scene, ask yourself, "Do the characters sound like four different people, or do they all sound the same?" Use different slang, rhythm, intonations and speech patterns to convey the characters' differences. Now have friends read the different parts, as written. The dialogue should sound as if four different people are speaking.


Take the scene from the accompanying lecture where the father is answering the door to his daughter's date, whom he can't stand and has no intention of allowing to date his daughter. Rewrite that scene as an oblique scene - in other words, don't write in the expected way shown in the first example in the lecture. Rewrite it so that the ending is the same - the young man gets the message that he will not be allowed to go out with the daughter -- but get there in an unexpected way.


One of the best ways to break into writing for television is to write speculative ("spec") teleplays for television shows that are on the air that you like. If you're trying to break into television writing, don't write a pilot and submit it, especially if you have no credits. Most novice writers try to write pilots. They come to me with no credits and they say, "Can you read my ideas for a television show?" That's like saying, "I'm pumping gas here at this gas station, but I want to run the oil company." I buy scripts all the time that are spec scripts from people who wrote an episode of Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue on spec that didn't sell. Just because the script didn't sell to NYPD Blue, doesn't mean it wasn't a good script. It may just mean that it wasn't exactly what the creator had in mind for the show - it could have even been just 10% off in tone or style. But if you've gotten pretty close in capturing the style of the show, I will see that. I'm just another TV viewer and I'm nowhere near as dialed in on NYPD Blue as they are. Many times the spec script will be a calling card for another show. You may not sell it to the show for which it was written, but it's not wasted if it doesn't sell. You can still send it out with your agent. People are always asking for writing samples -- spec scripts are great for that.


Tape an episode from one of your favorite television shows. Analyze it. What worked about the scene? What did it reveal about each of the characters? What was the tone, the mood of the scene? Now write a scene of your own for your favorite TV show, doing your best to capture the style of the show and the essence of the main characters.


Copyright © 1998-2016 by Stephen J. Cannell and Writers Write, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Copying, reproduction, or dissemination of these materials in any form whatsoever is expressly forbidden.